Love Bites, Horse Style

Someone recently commented on Bill’s post about our horses trying to eat our fingers, and it occurred to me that I really ought to address the issue of horse bites.

Yes, horses do bite; some more than others. Usually, it’s a natural part of horse behavior. Horses have various ways of communicating, and biting each other is a big part of that – from friendly “nips” to show love, to more insistent bites to get another horse to move, to actual biting in an aggressive way. Horses can hurt each other pretty badly this way (always be careful when introducing horses to each other – yet another future post topic), but usually the bites are light enough that they don’t do any serious damage.

It’s a different story, however, when a horse bites a human. Our skin isn’t nearly as tough as horsehide, and I can tell you from personal experience that horse bites hurt. Now, horses bite humans for pretty much the same reasons that they bite each other. We are, after all part of their herd, and they need to communicate with us too. They will nip you in a friendly way to say “hi.” They will nip you if you’re standing somewhere they don’t want you to stand to politely ask you to move. They will nip in anger or to show you they’re the boss. As you can guess, this natural behavior is another way that they can unwittingly hurt us simply because they are so much bigger and more powerful. So naturally, you need to discourage that behavior.

As we have been reminded in comments to our post referenced above, horses will also bite you if you habitually feed them treats by hand. We do indeed feed apples, carrots and other treats to our horses by hand, but this is strongly discouraged by most people. There are couple of reasons for this: one, their aim isn’t all that good and they will accidentally suck in fingers or even a whole hand with their treat. Two, once the treat is gone, they may not realize it because your hand still smells like the treat or they just expect it to be there. Three, even if your hand didn’t recently hold a treat, if you usually offer one when you greet them and didn’t bring one this time, they may just take a bite anyway. So the best advice is to feed all treats out of a bucket. That’s an easy way to prevent injury and bad habits.

So, if your horse already has the bad habit of nipping you, what do you do? Valentine was quite the nipper when we got him. I don’t think he ever meant it in a mean way; all his bites were gentle, “friendly” bites – that unfortunately left me with not-so-friendly bruises. Old-timers we talked to advocate smacking the horse when he bites you, but I personally cannot hit my horses. I yelled “No!” in a loud, firm voice and spread my arms out wide – the idea is to make yourself seem bigger. Valentine startled each time and backed up. I think that was just the reaction he needed to have. It showed that he recognized me as the boss and that he shouldn’t do whatever he just did. It worked – he hasn’t nipped me in months.

The key though, as with any bad behavior, is to not let it go on. Nip it in the bud, so to speak.

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